Miami-Dade County

Jackson hospital wins permission to charge parking fees for disabled drivers

Jackson Health System won a waiver to county law Tuesday that will allow it to charge parking fees to drivers with disabled permits.

Jackson CEO Carlos Migoya noted drivers with disabilities requiring a special vehicle — such as a car with a modified door or chair to allow use of a wheelchair — would still be granted free parking under state law. But for motorists with standard disabled-parking permits, they’ll soon be paying the same parking fees as other visitors to the county-owned hospital system.

Miami-Dade law requires all local government facilities to provide free parking for disabled motorists, but the commission has already exempted Miami International Airport and PortMiami from the rules amid accusations of drivers abusing the benefit.

Jackson charges $2 an hour for parking, but Migoya said a new system will be rolled out soon where all visitors will receive free parking for two hours. Low-income patients are already granted free parking, so commissioners argued the new fees won’t affect disabled drivers who can’t afford the costs.

“Let’s not assume all disabled people are poor,” said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, who joined seven commissioners in approving the new fees.

Added Commissioner Bruno Barreiro: “You see some cars that are extremely expensive, and they are getting free parking. Yes, they should have priority parking.…”

Three people with disabilities spoke against the Jackson proposal, saying it added costs to a group that often faces disadvantages when it comes to income and services. “It’s like putting salt in the wounds of people who can’t put food on the table,” said Ernie Martinez, a disabled-rights advocate who addressed commissioners from his wheelchair. Later, he said to Migoya: “Congratulations on your victory.”

In an interview, Martinez said it often takes people with disabilities longer to get to and from Jackson, adding to parking fees. Other advocates complained to commissioners that it takes too long to qualify for the free parking under Jackson’s booking system.

County garages waive fees for motorists with disabled permits, as required by the Miami-Dade code. The law applies to city garages too, but Miami-Dade has recently begun exempting county facilities from the rule.

Commissioners pointed to fraud accusations last fall in approving a waiver for the disabled-parking rules at MIA and PortMiami. A 2008 report by the Office of the Inspector General found half of MIA’s disabled parking spots were occupied by airport workers, two of whom were arrested in a crackdown.

“There’s a little bit of momentum building to stop the proliferation of these [disabled] tags,” said Art Noriega, head of the Miami Parking Authority, which manages Jackson’s parking garages.

Migoya said waiving Jackson’s parking fees for the first two hours will cost the hospital at least $700,000 a year, though the net expense will be closer to $200,000 for the new system because disabled drivers are expected to contribute about $500,000 once they start paying. He said the changes are needed to make Jackson more competitive by offering free short-term parking and simplifying the payment system. The new fees and the two-hour free parking should begin May 1, Migoya said.

At the Baptist Health System, most garages don’t charge for parking. The University of Miami hospital, Jackson’s nearest competitor, does charge for its garages, but motorists with disabled permits park for free, according to representatives from both hospitals.

The new fees for disabled motorists comes on the heels of Jackson winning a new property tax to fund $832 million worth of improvements. Commission Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa, who joined Javier Souto in voting against the proposal, noted the timing.

“Let’s be thankful the community just approved what it approved’’ for Jackson, she said. “Because part of the disabled community will be paying for those improvements.”

“When you are disabled… you have a heavy load to bear,” she added.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.